Editor’s Note: Raymond Reid unexpectedly passed away on October 19, 2022, just after this story’s publication.
With three bird feeders, a birdbath, and a birdhouse in my backyard; with a paperback guide to birds on my desk, bearing the date I saw five cardinals at once one snowy January day; with the cardinal as North Carolina’s official state bird, how have I not known this, heard this, been aware of this?
Call it a notion. Call it a belief or folklore or even superstition, that people the world over equate a cardinal’s appearance with a visit, a message, from someone who has died. Raymond Reid heard the lore all his life. “My grandmother, my mother, always said that cardinals represent a sign from heaven,” he says, and mentions Victoria McGovern, whose poem is perhaps the most quoted expression of the legend:
May you come to find comfort in and remember: Cardinals appear when angels are near. So go now, sit outside and drink your tea. Keep a look out for the little red bird — It is there, your loved one will be.
When Reid was still a teenager, his father purchased correspondence art lessons — what today would be considered an online course — for his artistically inclined son with an affinity for Andrew Wyeth’s work. Reid went on to a career in commercial art at advertising agencies from Knoxville, Tennessee, to the largest ad agency in Greensboro at the time, as well as teaching painting classes. He opened his own full-service agency on State Street in Greensboro in 1987. In 1999, he sold the company, agreeing to a seven-year noncompete clause.
Raymond Reid often sees the winged subjects of his paintings in his backyard while working at home in Kernersville. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
“That’s when I really began painting a lot,” Reid says. He began writing humor columns for the Kernersville News in 2003, which helped him cope with his wife’s long illness and grieve her death in 2007. He eventually won a first-place national award for his work.
Then, in late 2018, deviating from his usual figure studies and landscapes, he completed a painting that he titled The Four Seasons, rectangular panels featuring a cardinal in seasonal backgrounds of snow, autumn leaves, the blue hydrangeas of summer, and, of course, a spring dogwood. What happened next, Reid himself isn’t sure how to explain: “I know it sounds corny, but it was almost like divine intervention.” He works in watercolor, an unforgiving medium that the artist describes as “live fast and die young.” Using the “wet-on-wet” technique, Reid dampens his paper and then applies wet paint so the colors blend.
For North Carolinians, especially, cardinals are a faithful presence in our lives, almost like guardian angels. Reid’s 2018 painting The Four Seasons was his first foray into what has become a signature theme. painting by Raymond Reid
“I put in color, let it run, control it if I can. But something just appeared in the clouds,” he says. “I just squinted and … saw it.”
That “it” was an angel.
And indeed, you must peer closely, gaze beyond and above the cardinal’s familiar, blood red, rounded body with a crested head. It’s just there, hovering momentarily, a floating figure caught in an updraft, or there, within a cloud bank, or there, blurred by falling snow. Both the flowing hair and indistinct wings might well be mistaken for wispy clouds. The facial expression is calm, softened, serene. The angel may have surprised the cardinal, or it may have been present all along. The spirits are “happy accidents,” Reid says. “When the paint dries, sometimes things show up.” As with much art, interpretation is up to the individual who studies it.
Reid’s love of cardinals had inspired him to join a Facebook group called “Anything Cardinals,” filled with stories, photographs, and images of the birds. In January 2019, he began posting his cardinal paintings, a series he has since named “Visitors from Heaven,” and was overwhelmed with the responses, from Iceland to Ireland, Africa to Australia, Turkey to Thailand — whether cardinals are indigenous to the country or not — and particularly from people who had lost a child, a parent, a spouse.
“People see males, females, likenesses of relatives” in the angels, and requests for commissioned portraits with Reid’s signature cardinal and unfocused, shadowy angels have come from 30 states and Canada. “And everyone has heard about the cardinal as a sign,” he says. “Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Catholics — doesn’t matter their spiritual belief; they relate to it.” Often, their stories are painful tales of untimely, tragic, accidental deaths. “They pour out their hearts to me,” he says, but leave the composition up to him.
Reid’s painting Sitting Pretty. painting by Raymond Reid
Working from photographs, Reid has painted 32 portraits of deceased loved ones, ages 4 to 86, and there’s a cardinal in each work. “I paint the person first,” he says, “cardinal last, on branches that are always bare. That’s my trademark, and whether the cardinal faces outward or sideways is never planned. It just comes to me.” The cardinal is never in flight, never with a cocked head, as if asking, “Should I be here? Is danger present?” It is certain, rather; sure of its place; a winged reminder of hope and a symbol of comfort.
Reid’s work is represented in private and public collections around the country, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Novant Health, Cone Health, and Wilkes Community College. He’s had 19 one-man shows. But he’s proudest of his portrait of Mother Teresa, a cardinal in the lower corner, now on permanent display in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York. The Comforter, his painting of a masked nurse with a cardinal resting on her shoulder, was featured in the January 2021 issue of the American Journal of Nursing.
A lively, funny fellow — “I’ve been told I can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in less than 50 words,” he jokes — Reid creates his cardinals entirely from memory. In his large, lakeside lot in Kernersville, he says, “they’re here every day, and seem to come around more often since I started painting them. One morning while I was painting in the sunroom, a flock of 30 or 40 females landed in a holly tree.”
As symbols of those we’ve lost, why cardinals? Because they manage to be both perky and regal with their tufted crowns? Because they project innocence yet confidence, curiosity yet assurance? Because they always appear in pairs, never far from one another?
Cardinals are monogamous birds and often mate for life, making them a symbol not only of the Old North State but also of loyalty, constancy, and devotion. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
In my smilax and climbing hydrangea, even in my thorny espaliered pyracantha, wrens and sparrows and purple finches make multiple nests each spring, but I’ve never seen a cardinal’s nest. Yet they flock to my feeders, and now and then perch atop the head of the small Saint Francis statue that stands amid my periwinkle. It’s a sight, that blazing red against the gray concrete of Saint Francis holding a raccoon, a chipmunk, a bear cub. Reid has a similar statue in his yard, and even as we talk, a cardinal alights there.
Frail twig or sturdy fence, on the wing or on a statue — one never knows where or when those red-feathered messengers, legendarily from heaven, will appear. So the next time your bird feeder stands empty, don’t delay in refilling. Because as Hebrews 13:2 reads, “Forget not to show love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”